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Egyptian Blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah on His Detention and Egypt: Democracy Now! Interview

[Alaa Abdel El Fattah. Image from screen shot of video below] [Alaa Abdel El Fattah. Image from screen shot of video below]

Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian revolutionary activist and blogger, has been released from prison after nearly two months behind bars. Fattah was ordered jailed by a military court on October 30 and summoned to face charges that included inciting violence—a charge he firmly denies. He refused to cooperate, rejecting the legitimacy of the military court who wanted to try him as a civilian. We speak to Fattah about the Egyptian revolution’s ongoing struggle against the military regime and his ordeal in one of Egypt’s worst prisons, which prevented him from attending the birth of his first son. Fattah’s trial comes just as Egypt’s ousted leader, Hosni Mubarak, returns to a Cairo courtroom today to face charges over the deaths of 840 protesters during the uprising against his rule. "What comes next might be even tougher and even more difficult," Fattah says, "but I don’t think that this revolution is going to end without really completely renegotiating the order of power in Egypt and across the Arab world."


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Egypt’s ousted leader, Hosni Mubarak, is back in a Cairo courtroom today after a break in his ongoing trial. He faces charges of complicity in the deaths of 840 protesters during the crackdown on the popular uprising that began this past February.

Well, Mubarak’s trial and this latest ruling comes just as one of Egypt’s most prominent revolutionary activists and bloggers has been released from prison after nearly two months behind bars. Alaa Abd El Fattah was ordered jailed by a military court on October 30th in a case that made headlines across Egypt and around the world. He was summoned to face charges that included inciting violence in what has become known as the "Maspero massacre," when 27 people were killed in a military crackdown on a protest made up of largely Coptic Christians in early October. Alaa Abd El Fattah refused to recognize the legitimacy of the military court to try him as a civilian and refused to answer any questions or cooperate with the court. Since the Egyptian revolution began, more than 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, a practice decried by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

AMY GOODMAN: The military prosecutor ordered Alaa to be held pending investigation. He was eventually transferred to a civilian court, released on Christmas Day after 56 days behind bars.

While he was in prison, his wife Manal gave birth to their first child, a son they named Khaled, after Khaled Said, the young Egyptian businessman who was beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria in June 2010, in a case that came to symbolize police brutality and helped spark the Egyptian revolution. After being released, Alaa Abd El Fattah went directly to Tahrir Square, in his prison uniform, where he kissed his son and jubilant wife and spoke out against the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, who have been governing Egypt since Mubarak was forced out office.

Today, Alaa Abd El Fattah joins us from Cairo.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Alaa. Congratulations on getting out. Can you talk about your time in jail, in this post-revolutionary period, the time that Mubarak has fallen?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Yes, hi. Thank you for having me in.

Well, my—this is the second time that I got detained. The first time was during Mubarak’s rule and in the early phases of our pro-democracy and anti-democracy movement, five years before the revolution, back in 2006. And this time, I actually went to the same prison. I was guarded by the same prison guards and so on. So it was a bit of a—in one way, it was a bit of a letdown that, you know, even after we started a revolution and we toppled our—the dictator, I’m back at that same spot, in the same place.

But the solidarity movement, you know, the actions that people were taking while I was in prison to support me and support the cause of, you know, no military trials for civilians, and also to continue the revolution until we also topple the military regime, it was so overwhelming. I mean, like, my imprisonment led to such a strong reaction that it made me—it made it very easy for me to, you know, survive and remain with high morales, and so on, in prison. And then there was this, you know, new revolutionary wave with protesters back in Tahrir, not related to my case. This is just how—the flow of our revolution. And it was very exciting, but it was quite tough to know that all my friends and colleagues and family are risking their lives, some of them losing their eyes, some of them losing their lives, while I am unable to participate or even know what’s going on minute by minute, as I’m used to.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alaa, can we just go back a bit and explain—if you could explain what happened on that day, the day of the Maspero massacre?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Yes. That was on the 9th of October. There was a big march planned by several movements that were born out of the Coptic Christian community, basically protesting, you know, sectarian strife, violence against churches or, you know—and also laws that restrict building or renovating churches. So, and it was a peaceful march, and it was quite big. I mean, I think it was like the biggest march to focus on the Coptic issues, you know, maybe 20,000 or 30,000. They marched from a popular neighborhood called Shubra, and the plan was to get just right here, behind me, to surround the Maspero building, which is where the state broadcast, radio and TV, broadcasts from. I think the symbolism around Maspero is that state media have always been, you know, downplaying the role of Christians and any other minorities in Egypt, but also have been downplaying the reality of sectarian strife in the country.

It was a peaceful march. They were supposed to just spend one hour in front of the building and then leave. But before they reached the building, they were attacked by the military. Three armed personnel carriers drove through the crowds, killing 17 people, and then live bullets were used against the protesters. Most of the protesters fled the scene. Many were injured. Around 28 people died. Then they started resisting. They started breaking the pavement and resisting the military with rocks and clubs or, you know, anything that they could get their hands on.

During that time, the media crackdown operation—there was a media crackdown operation by the military. Also they actually invaded a couple of buildings where independent TV channels were trying to cover the events live. The state broadcaster was showing a completely different picture. They started from the reaction. They started from the resistance, showing Christian protesters attacking the military. And then they started making false claims that tens of officers have been killed, and so on, in what appeared to—in what appears to have been a plan to incite sectarian strife. They were basically practically asking Muslims to come down and protect the army and attack any Christians that they find in the streets.

Luckily, the revolutionary youth, the Tahrir youth, whatever you want to call them, and many of the human rights activists, radical political parties, and whatnot, a few of them were, you know, participating in solidarity in that protest. And then hundreds of them joined, went down to the streets, when they heard the news, trying to figure out what is the truth and trying to see what can be done. So we managed together to move the injured to hospitals, move the—our comrades who fell on that day to morgues. And then, the hospitals and the morgues were being attacked, so we had to protect them. And then we had to make a stand and make sure that a proper autopsy and an investigation gets done so that we have solid evidence and material that we could use to counter the military council’s propaganda and their cover-up for that massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, why, Alaa, did you get arrested? Why did the military go after you?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Well, they—the way the military handled that case, that incident, legally, was to arrest the victims and then claim that they are the ones who attacked. And, you know, that’s a pattern that they’ve been using since then. They’ve used it in the recent events in Tahrir Square. And it’s a very strange argument, but as we’ve seen everywhere in the world, really, you know, those in—the argument and the discourse that those in power use has—you know, has automatic legitimacy even if they’re saying complete rubbish. So, basically, they were saying 28 people died, you know, 28 protesters died, but it was the protesters who were attacking the military; the military never attacked, and nobody knows who killed the 28 protesters. And that’s how they wanted to deal with it, and that’s how they wanted to cover it up.

And I think they felt that they are in a very strong position because they were tapping into the sectarian issue, which is—you know, which has existed in Egypt for long, and so, you know, they were trying to build on that. And it’s easy to deny the victims any sympathy, and it’s easy to deny them any agency also. And so, they were, you know, drunk on power and decided, why not also bring in a few activists, get rid of a few activists who may be causing them a headache? And they specifically targeted the activists who, you know, put in a lot of effort in exposing the reality of and the facts of what happened in that massacre, in the Maspero incident. So there was a list of 11 activists, and I was at the top of that list. So I was the first one to be questioned. But they planned to arrest more. And so, it was basically just convenience to try, you know, and see if they can arrest and convict what they considered a key activist in the revolution—I don’t think I am a key activist in the revolution, but I believe they think so—but also to punish, you know, the people who worked hard on exposing the facts and the realities of what happened on that day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Alaa, can you say a little about your time in detention? You were moved from one prison to another?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Yes, the first five days I was put in a pretty bad prison. Now, all prisons—well, all prisons in the world are bad, like, you know, losing your freedom is quite tough, but also all prisons in Egypt are in very poor conditions. And so, even if they don’t torture you, just spending one night there is already, you know, a bit too much. But I was in a particularly bad prison, and they made sure to put me in a particularly bad cell and to deny me, you know, any comfort. So, for instance, I was in a complete darkness for five days. It was very filthy and very crowded. It was nine of us in a two-by-three-meter cell, having no access to water or toilet except 10 minutes per day. You know, so, basically, they knew they couldn’t torture me, because of the solidarity and the media attention, so they just made sure to try and use every other measure to, you know, put me at discomfort or at a psychological pressure. Now, every other person who was arrested in the Maspero incident were tortured severely. And torture is still very systematic in—you know, in police stations and in prisons and so forth. But they knew that they couldn’t torture me.

Anyway, after five days of trying to improve my conditions, we basically started making threats that we’re going to, you know, expose this and make a big fuss about it. So they moved me to a better prison, which is the one—Torah Tahrir phon., which is the one I used to be in back in 2006. And this time, they obviously had instructions to treat me very nicely, you know, as nicely as they could. And so, I was in a clean room, not very crowded—a cell, and not very crowded, and I was well treated. But they basically tried to isolate me from the other prisoners, both political and criminal prisoners. I mean, they would specifically—they wouldn’t use violence with me, but if I, like—if I’m out of my cell—you’re allowed out of your cell for one hour per day, you know, to move your legs and get some sunlight and so on. So if I’m out of my cell and I have a chat with a criminal detainee, the next day, if I meet him, his hair is shaved, and he’s, you know, avoiding me and so on. And I realized that, then, they were putting pressure on anyone who’s, you know, starting up a friendship with me or trying to talk with me. I’m not sure what they were worried about, but they certainly wanted me to be, you know, isolated without putting me in isolation.

AMY GOODMAN: Alaa, you, in court, refused to answer questions of the military court. Can you explain why, and also who you think should be on trial now? You’re among more than 12,000 people since Mubarak fell, civilians, who have been imprisoned and are being brought before these military courts.

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Yeah. These are more like military tribunals, right? They’re not proper courts at all. And in fact, in the early days of the revolution, there wasn’t even a pretense of being a proper court, like there were hundreds who were tried in the kitchens of the military prison. Their trials would take five minutes. They wouldn’t be told what are their—what the charges are. They wouldn’t be allowed defense, and so on.

Since then, we started quite a successful campaign against military tribunals, against military trials for civilians. And so they had to, instead of, you know, heeding our demand and stopping the practice, they had to improve the show. You know, so then they started pretending that it’s a proper court, have three judges present—they are not judges, or they are army officers—allow a defense, you know, let the case take its time, talk about evidence, and so on. But in most cases, there will be no acquittal, you know, and there’s no proper appeals process. There’s an appeals process that—in which some military officer decides, based on their own whims, whether they accept the appeal or not. It’s not a legal process, and so on. So, basically, it’s not a proper court. There’s no due process. They are no guarantees that it’s a fair trial. And so, it is the natural and obvious thing to do, actually, to refuse to appear before the court.

I couldn’t refuse to appear before it, because I was abroad. I was in San Francisco, actually, when my summons arrived, when they sent my summons to my place. So I had to go—I had to go back to Egypt and hand myself in. Otherwise, they would have, you know, treated me or painted me as a fugitive. But I had to refuse to, you know, cooperate at all in the investigation because it is not a fair trial. But there is also another reason. You know, the military are the guilty party in that incident, and they, the military, the military rulers, you know, the members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, should be the ones who are being investigated and should be the ones who are being put to trial. And so, these military officers, who will be acting like judges, are under their command, so they cannot be neutral, they cannot be impartial.

And so, basically, we refused to cooperate, and we demanded that the case be transferred to a civilian judge and that—we mentioned specific generals, General Hamdi Badin, who is the head of the military police, General Rouini, who is the head of the—I don’t know what you call it—the sector of the army that covers Cairo, as the people directly responsible for the killings on the 9th of October. And in fact, the campaign, my refusal to talk, the efforts of our human rights lawyers and the return of the protesters in Tahrir, in Tahrir Square, were effective enough so that the case was transferred to a civilian prosecutor. They initially moved it to the state security prosecutor, which is still extraordinary justice. There’s no appeals process. But with further pressure, it was moved to a proper judge. And it was that judge who released me, who ordered my release.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alaa, the first anniversary—

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: I am still pending investigation, so I am still accused.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The first anniversary of the January 25th revolution is coming up next month. And one of your cellmates in prison said to you that — and this is a quote — "I swear by God if this revolution doesn’t do something radical about injustice, it will sink without a trace." Do you think there’s a chance that this revolution will sink without a trace?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: No, I’m very optimistic about our chances. But it’s very difficult to predict when—you know, when we’re going to make more wins, and so on. I think it’s going to be a lengthy process. I think the price is going to be very high. I mean, the recent—the recent crackdowns that happened like in the past few weeks, there’s a sense that they’re now targeting people, that the killings are not random anymore, that they’re picking who to kill. The intensity of the torture is much higher. I think the whole world have seen how they try to use sexual violence, and specifically against women and in public, to, you know, strike some fear into us. So, what comes next might be even tougher and even more difficult, but I don’t think that this revolution is going to end without—without really completely renegotiating the order of power in Egypt and across the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about one of the—what I think you’ve just alluded to. Yesterday, an Egyptian civilian court ruled forced virginity tests on female detainees in military prisons were illegal. Samira Ibrahim, the woman who brought the case against these tests after being subjected to one earlier this year, was cheered by hundreds of activists inside the courtroom yesterday after the ruling was read out.

EGYPTIAN ACTIVIST: [translated] Today we stand in solidarity with our sister Samira against the various and continuous military abuses, whether they’re against Egypt’s women or revolutionary youth, with the goal of removing our revolution from squares and streets. But we will never let go of our rights. Whether youth or women, we will always participate. We will not quiet down until we see our country on the right path.

AMY GOODMAN: Alaa, the significance of this ruling on the illegality of forced virginity tests?

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: I think the significance is not actually legal, because they—I mean, what the court ruled is that the action was always illegal, and I think the people who practiced it knew that it was always illegal. So the significance is on a much more symbolic, but much more profound levels. In one way, Samira was—you know, Samira talked about her ordeal very early on, at a moment when the military was very popular in Egypt, at a moment when everybody believed that the revolution is over, it has achieved its goals by toppling Mubarak. And also—so, just talking about military injustice was breaking a taboo. But also, you know, talking about sexual violence, that she was personally subjected to, and the framing of it as a virginity test—you know, so it’s not even framed as rape, which is what it is, but it’s framed as a virginity test, which brings in question whether she’s a virgin or not, and so on—that also took a lot of courage and was breaking another taboo. And for a very long time, for weeks and weeks and weeks, she was subjected to a lot of criticism and a lot of pressure, sometimes from people who appeared to be supporters of the revolution, sometimes from people who are among the political elite, and even from, you know, from people who pretend to be feminists and so on. And so, that ruling is—represents a wide recognition in Egyptian society, and even within the Egyptian state, you know, through its judicial branch, of that injustice, of the truth behind Samira’s words and of the injustice in her ordeal—


ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: —and of, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, and I wanted to ask a quick—

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: —her honor, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you a quick question about your family—a long tradition of resistance in Egypt. Your father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, is a prominent human rights lawyer, jailed and tortured under the Mubarak regime. Your mother, Laila Soueif, well-known activist, professor, founding member of the Movement for the Independence of Universities. Your sister, Mona, a prominent activist, founding member of No to Military Trials campaign. Your aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, bestselling novelist and writer. While you were in prison, your wife Manal gave birth to your first child, a son, named for Khaled Said, and I was wondering if you can wrap—we just have 20 seconds—by you talking about the significance of your child being born while you were in jail.

ALAA ABD EL FATTAH: Yeah, it was—it was heartbreaking, obviously, not to attend the birth, but he visited me on his third day. And my happiness and love for him basically made prison tolerable.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you so much for being with us. Congratulations on your freedom, Alaa Abd El Fattah. We will continue to follow the Egyptian revolution.


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